The Left Bank Quartet has distinguished itself by its programming of contemporary music, if not always by the overall quality of its playing. The group’s performance on Sunday afternoon, presented through the Steinway Series of free concerts in the auditorium of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was a case in point. Two more-commonly heard quartets, by Leos Janacek and Antonin Dvorak, received professional but unremarkable renditions, while a relatively new work by American composer Paul Moravec stood out.
Actually, Moravec’s “Tempest Fantasy” is not exactly an unknown quantity, either. In the years since it won the composer a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, it has received a few performances in the area, proving itself a durable piece over multiple hearings. Guest pianist Audrey Andrist, building on her experience performing the work, anchored this performance with fleet fingerwork, while Paul Cigan stole the show with his grunting bass clarinet turn in the Caliban movement, a monster struggling its best to achieve elegance. Cellist Evelyn Elsing was perhaps too retiring in the role of Prospero in the second movement, too covered by the other instruments, and violinist David Salness had his best moments in the sweet, floating introduction to the fourth movement (“Sweet Airs”).